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Like people, dogs can sometimes stare – but can you tell what a particular stare means? An unblinking stare with a relaxed or “wiggly” body probably means that the dog is trying to be friendly, and wants your attention. On the other hand, a “hard” stare, with a stiff body, is a sign of aggression.

Big eyes

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Often described as “puppy dog eyes”, the “big eye” trick is something adult dogs also do. It’s the dog’s way of letting his owner know how much he trusts and loves them – and that he’d very much appreciate a treat in return. It’s a successful behavior because the effect is so reminiscent of a puppy that it provokes feelings of protectiveness in people.

Sitting, tongue out, watching you

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A dog that’s sitting down and has his tongue curling out of his mouth probably isn’t panting to cool down. Instead, if he’s watching you, he’s likely to be feeling relaxed in his environment but also ready to leap into action if you show him any attention.


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Dogs frequently howl in response to high-pitched noises. The noise might come from another dog. However, it’s also often fireworks, a train whistle, a neighbor’s burglar alarm, or someone practising a musical instrument. It’s unclear whether the dog is joining in with the noise or expressing discomfort.

Low growl

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The growl is part of the dog’s early warning system. It signifies an animal who isn’t comfortable with his surroundings. It’s often also the dog’s way of holding off on a bite. Ignore a growl at your peril. Growls can escalate to bites. Equally, never punish a dog for growling as you could end up with an animal who skips straight to biting.

Tail relaxed, ears pricked, mouth open

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his is a relaxed dog, who’s comfortable in his surroundings but also paying attention to what’s going on around him. A relaxed dog frequently allows himself to get more physically comfortable. For instance, if he’s standing, he may sit. And if he’s sitting he may lie down.

Lying and looking at you

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A dog who is lying down but whose gaze is fixed on you may be seeking your approval. Alternatively, he may be soliciting your attention albeit in a relatively low-key manner. Either way, this behavior indicates that your dog wants your attention as soon as possible.

Blinking or squinting

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Of course, your dog could have something in his eye. However, if the eye isn’t red or watery and the dog isn’t showing any other signs of discomfort, your pet probably just wants your attention. It’s a low-key way of going about it although some dogs will supplement the blinking with a little quiet whining.

Ears back, teeth bared, snarling

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This is a dog that’s feeling threatened. You might not be the threat but a dog in this state can easily deflect onto something or someone else. This means that you risk a snap or even a bite if you approach him. Much better to keep your distance and your voice calm until he relaxes.

Bark rising in pitch

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A bark that starts sounding low in pitch but gradually gets higher belongs to an excited dog. It’s usually also a dog who wants to play – whether that’s with you or another dog. As if to confirm the dog’s intentions, this sort of bark often accompanies the play bow.

Fast, twitching tail wag

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Tails are an important means of communication for a dog. However, contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog. For instance, a fast, twitching tail wag indicates a highly aroused dog. The reason for the arousal could be excitement but it could also be alarm.

Slow, sweeping tail wag

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A dog that’s wagging its tail in long, slow sweeps from side-to-side is a relaxed dog. He’s comfortable with his surroundings and with any other dogs or people close to him. The dog may also have a slightly open mouth with a protruding but relaxed tongue.

Tail tucked between legs

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A dog with its tailed tucked between its legs is a nervous or frightened dog. If it relaxes and decides that whatever’s worrying it isn’t so scary after all, the tail will move back to a more natural position. However, if the dog’s fear grows, the tail may curl further beneath the dog’s lower abdomen, while the back may arch upwards.

Tail held straight out

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A dog that’s holding its tail stiffly and often level with the slope of its back is a defensive dog. Something is concerning it. However, rather than expressing fear or submission, this is a dog that’s preparing to defend itself. Try not to make eye contact with a dog in this posture. It may perceive it as an additional threat.

Upright tail

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If a dog holds its tail upright, rather like someone waving a flag, that dog is showing that it’s alert but confident with it. Sometimes a dog adopts this posture when approached by a strange dog. It’s a way of saying, “I’m prepared to greet you but I’m also watching to make sure you behave appropriately.”

Helicopter tail

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A tail that swishes round like the rotor blades of a helicopter belongs to a happy dog. For instance, he might be happy because his owner has just arrived, because it’s dinnertime, or because he’s expecting a walk. Whatever the reason, a helicopter tail is a beautiful thing to witness.

Play bow

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Dogs use the play bow to invite another dog to play. Some dogs also employ the play bow with their human companions – often with great success. With the play bow, the dog lowers its chest and front legs to the ground and raises its rear end. It may also holds its tail high.

Submissive belly display

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A dog that wants to appease a possible aggressor – whether that’s another dog or a person – may roll over and display its belly. This display of vulnerability is the dog’s way of telling the other dog or person that it’s not a threat. Like many other dog behaviors, it’s a posture also seen in wild canids, including wolves.

Asking for a belly rub

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Another reason for a dog to display its belly is a blatant attempt to solicit a belly rub. This is a behavior almost invariably directed at humans. You can distinguish it from a submissive belly display by the loose and wiggly body, the relaxed and open mouth, and the relaxed and wagging tail.


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A leaning dog is usually a dog that’s displaying its affection. In effect, it’s the canine version of cuddling. Some dogs do a lot of leaning, others only occasionally, and some not at all. However, if your dog doesn’t lean, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel anything for you. Like humans, dogs have many ways of displaying their feelings.

Ears up and facing forwards

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You can tell a lot about how a dog is feeling from its ears. (Unless, of course, it’s had them clipped in a painful, unnecessary and often illegal procedure.) Ears held up and pricked slightly forward indicate an alert dog, who’s paying attention to what’s going on around him.

Ears back or sideways

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Unless they naturally fall this way, ears held back or sideways indicates a dog who’s unsure of something. Generally, the flatter the ears are against the head, the more nervous the dog. Depending on the animal, he may move backwards and try to hide. However, remember that an unsure dog can become fearful and a fearful dog may express his fear through aggression.


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Whining is one of the most annoying dog behaviors. Like small children, dogs often whine because they’re bored and are seeking attention or entertainment. Ensuring your dog has plenty of exercise and mental stimulation (such as scent work and other training exercises) can help reduce the incidence of whining.

Repetitive high-pitched bark

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A distressed dog may express that distress via a persistently repeated high-pitched bark. One of the most common reasons for distress is separation anxiety. In other words, this is a dog who really struggles when left alone. Sometimes, an owner only discovers that their dog has separation anxiety when a neighbor complains about the noise the dog makes when left alone.


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As they cannot sweat, dogs regulate their temperature via panting. Although the need to cool down is the most common reason for panting, it’s not the only one. A dog may also pant if he’s scared, excited, feeling playful or even in pain. Deciphering the precise reason will depend on looking at other aspects of his behavior and on what’s going on around him.


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Licking is a very instinctive behavior in dogs. They lick to groom themselves, as a way to strengthen bonds between individuals, and even to express affection. The second two reasons are why your dog may sometimes lick you. On the other hand, excessive licking may indicate stress or an injury or other health problem.

Eating poop

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Many dogs have habits that are unsavoury to humans – and eating poo (properly known as “coprophagia”) often tops the list. Dogs will eat poo from other animals, including other dogs, and sometimes will even eat their own poo. They may do so out of hunger, habit, boredom, stress or, occasionally, because they’re lacking particular nutrients from their diet.


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Pacing is not usually the behavior of a healthy, calm dog. It’s sometimes seen in guard dogs who have been trained to patrol an area. However, it generally indicates that something is wrong. This might mean that they’re stressed, anxious or feeling threatened. On rare occasions, it can also indicate a health problem, particularly something affecting the brain.


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Like their wild relative, the wolf, dogs scent-mark. Seen in both sexes, it involves depositing small traces of urine against trees, posts and on the ground. They may also scuff grass or dirt after urinating. This behavior is the canine equivalent of a Facebook status: it says who made the deposit, how they’re feeling and, also, their reproductive status.

Scent-marking in the house

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To stop scent marking in the house, find out why it’s happening. Food bowls, dog beds and dog toys are common targets, especially if your pet is feeling threatened by the recent arrival of a new dog in the household. An over-stimulated dog may also scent-mark in the house; if this happens, make play sessions shorter and calmer.

Pulling on the leash

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A dog doesn’t pull on the leash to assert its dominance. It pulls because it wants to get wherever it’s going – even if it doesn’t know where that is. It may also pull as a natural reaction to the pressure of a collar and leash. Luckily, with the right training, you can teach a dog to walk to heel without pulling.

Leash reactivity

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Some dogs react by barking, lunging, growling or all three when they pass another dog. Although this behavior is sometimes seen in unleashed dogs, it’s most common when the reactive dog is on a leash. It’s a result of the dog feeling uncomfortable or anxious in a situation that, because of the leash, he cannot escape.

Circling before lying down

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Wild canines may circle before lying down in order to make their sleeping environment more comfortable. A pet dog may circle for the same reason but it’s also likely that the circling is a habit. Luckily, it’s generally a harmless one that causes no bother to either dog or owner.

Chasing other animals


Many dogs have some degree of prey drive – and some a have very strong prey drive. This is usually why dogs chase cats and other small furries, squirrels, rabbits and livestock. It’s an undesirable behavior, particularly where livestock is concerned – and farmers sometimes shoot dogs that are worrying their sheep or cattle.


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Herding behavior is instinctive in some breeds. While both acceptable and desirable in a working sheepdog, herding behavior may prove problematic in pet dogs. Signs you may have a herder on your hands include a “hard stare” (used by working dogs to exert non-physical pressure on livestock), heel nipping, or a dog that physically tries to move others with its own body.

Resource guarding

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This is when a dog tries to keep other dogs or people away from specific items. These might include food bowls, favorite toys, a particular sofa, or even a certain person. A dog who’s resource guarding may growl, lunge or even bite. Consequently, it’s very important to teach your dog that they don’t need to fear important things – such as their food – being taken away.


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Digging is instinctive behavior in most dogs. Some dogs dig to bury toys, food or other objects. Some dogs dig to obtain food – for instance, in your vegetable garden. And some dogs dig as an expression of boredom or playfulness. Unfortunately, digging is a hard behavioural trait to address and many people resort to fencing off precious parts of their gardens or yards.


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Most owners hate it but, for a dog, rolling in dirt or the poop of another animal is behavior that’s hard-wired into them. Properly known as “scent-rolling”, it’s thought to originate as a hunting tactic that disguises a wild canine’s natural scent and makes it easier for them to sneak up on prey.

Jumping up

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A young puppy jumps up to reach its mother’s mouth. It does so to greet her and persuade her to feed it. However, unless corrected, many puppies continue the behavior into adult life. Unfortunately, what’s cute and manageable in a small puppy can be annoying and even dangerous in a fully grown dog.


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Dogs beg because they receive rewards for the behavior. If you don’t like begging, don’t reward the action. Instead, teach your dog to lie on its bed during your mealtimes and, if necessary, put it in a separate room. Remember, too, that begging may result in your dog eating unsuitable or even dangerous food.